“You can only go halfway into the darkest forest, then you are coming out the other side.”
~ Chinese proverb
When I was nineteen, I sold my pantyhose to a stranger for fifty bucks. They were on my body at the time that I got this unexpected windfall…
I was getting out of my car in the San Fernando Valley, to stop by my cheesy, acting/modeling agent’s offices, which were located in a building with shiny mirrored windows on the exterior. I was wearing a skirt and high heels, in a sad attempt to look like I could be cast in roles like Jennifer the prostitute, if my husband hadn’t directed the movie (Mini’s First Time), and a man in his mid to late twenties drove up to me in a shiny Mustang convertible, just as I was about to cross the street.
It was broad daylight, and the man said in a cheerful manner that he was doing a scavenger hunt with his friends, and that one of the items on the list was a pair of women’s pantyhose, but there was a catch: they had to be obtained directly off of a woman’s body.
Now, fifty bucks was a lot of money to me then, and it still is. To say I’m not gifted in math is a seismic understatement, I’m the kind of person who counts with her fingers then recounts because I lost my train of thought halfway through. Still, I quickly calculated that the pantyhose I had on at the time had cost me roughly three dollars and ninety nine cents from a drugstore, pre-tax, and they currently had a hole in them, which I had dabbed with nail polish in order to stop it from turning into a run. Because of the hole, these pantyhose were literally on their last legs, on my legs.
At the time, I was working as a restaurant hostess at a place that was very trendy in the 1980’s called Trump’s (no relation to Donald), and I made about forty bucks for a seven or eight hour shift. In total, I made around three hundred dollars a week, which I barely scraped by on. This magical fifty bucks was just being offered to me, like a gift. This guy was friendly and smiling, he didn’t seem at all creepy. He had wavy, short blonde hair, and looked exactly like the aging, rich frat boy type who might be doing a scavenger hunt with his buddies.
I asked him if he would drive around the block, so I could have privacy while I took the hose off in my car, because I’m all about class. He said sure- he was extremely accommodating. I quickly yanked them off in my locked, old light blue Chevy Blazer that I had driven solo to California in, and he drove back up and we made the exchange.
I actually felt kind of sorry for the guy, thinking that I didn’t warn him that the feet part of the hose might be sweaty or smell bad. I didn’t even confess about the hole in the toe. Still, I felt pretty good about myself. Too bad, I thought, sucka, I got the better end of this deal.
When I got to work that night, I proudly told my friend and manager, Ramon, how I made this easy fifty bucks. He smiled and patiently explained to me, “Sweetie, right now that guy is wearing them on his head“. I was genuinely shocked, could it be possible that I was this naive?
It had never occurred to me that this guy could have been a pervert and would want my pantyhose for the nefarious purpose of inhaling the crotch area. I have since read about vending machines in Japan where men can purchase actual dirty, bacteria laden panties, as opposed to say, a Diet Sprite or some Funions. Gross!
When I look back on first couple of years after I moved to California, I am struck by how young and stupid I truly was. I wrote this (really bad) poem a few months after I arrived in L.A.:
Your highways and your bright lights reach an end, little girl,
where you gonna go from here?
You know that you no longer can pretend, little girl,
that all the past and all the pain will disappear.
Will they know that you are hiding
will they see it, will it show,
when the woman turns to child dust in the night?
Will they find you looking for the place
where all the princes go
when you need someone to tell you it’s alright?
will they know you if they see you,
as you huddle by the fire,
after twilight fog has disappeared?
If they see you, will they know you,
or will they leave you there,
standing in your tattered dress and tears?
I’m surprised I didn’t throw in a unicorn and a few fairies in my melodramatic fantasy. It’s a good thing I arrived to seek out my dreams with such a positive vision of my homeless, loveless and surely spontaneously combustible future.
I was “fresh off the bus” in so, so many ways. To my knowledge, before I moved to L.A., I had never met a gay person. There was the boy in my elementary school who I’ll call Trey, who screamed like a girl during kickball, and the other kids taunted with the sophisticated rhyme of “Trey is gay,” but that was about it. Trey did behave somewhat in the traditional, stereotypical sense that he could be considered a little high voiced or “swishy” for a guy, but we didn’t really know his genetic makeup at that age.
When my class did square dancing in P.E., I was assigned Trey as my dancing partner. I knew the other kids in class would tease me mercilessly that I was now “Trey’s girlfriend,” so I made a big show of trying not to hold his hand or even to touch him, as we performed the classic square dance promenade, walking together in circles around the gym floor. Trey kept snatching my hands back as I tried to pull them away. He gripped them, annoyed, until our teacher, Mrs. Hamskey, pulled me into the hallway to give me a good talking to.
Mrs. Hamskey was furious that I wouldn’t hold Trey’s hand, and told me that at her last teaching job, there had been a little person in class who everyone had made fun of. She said she had put a stop to that, and she’d put a stop to my rude behavior as well. I thought Mrs. Hamskey was a class-A B*&#% for embarrassing me in class, but deep down, I felt terribly guilty because I knew she was right. I had just been trying to maintain my meager social standing and avoid being teased, at the shameless expense of another kid. I was just scared myself.
I later became friends with Trey and we walked home from school together a lot after that, and I got over some jerks hooting at us or doing a rude kissy sound from a passing car. Trey would bravely shoot them the bird and we’d continue our conversation, he was used to the taunts.
Trey was a nice, sad kid, he once was sitting on the playground swings at school, when we were about six or seven years old, and he was pulling his gray jacket hood tightly over his head and pulling the drawstrings in order to squeeze his face painfully together. I sat on the swings next to him and looked at his red, pursed little face. I asked him what he was doing and he said “I’m trying to kill myself“.
Even though I felt it was unlikely he’d succeed at doing himself in by pulling the strings on his hoodie, I was concerned about him (I later put a version of this childhood moment in a screenplay I wrote, which became the biggest movie bomb practically ever, “The Hottie and the Nottie”).
That day, unaware of the future pitfalls waiting for me in adult life, I sat with Trey on the swings a while, trying to talk him off the ledge by reminding him of all of the good in life. I had that strange dichotomy as a kid, I wanted so badly to fit in or be cool, but I still indentified with the outcasts. I knew they were my people. I still do.
When I started working at the restaurant Trump’s, after moving to California at age eighteen, I quickly developed blind crushes on two of the gay male managers who worked there. My gaydar clearly unrefined, I first inquired whether or not Larry was single.
Larry was handsome, manly, well-groomed and intelligent. He smelled good and he had shiny shoes. Larry could also recite from memory the name of every Miss America winner, the state she was from, and her talent.
Seriously, I had no clue until someone told me, and I was genuinely taken aback. Not Larry, I thought, he has a deep voice! Another time I was “schooled” in this area was when I was upstairs near the office at Trump’s, about to punch out my employee time card on the clock, and the restaurant’s bookkeeper, a woman, confessed to me in hushed tones that she had a crush on one of the other employees.
My interest in employee gossip piqued, I asked “Who? Do tell…”, and she said “Trudie, the pastry lady“.
I sucked in a little bit of air. A woman having a crush on another woman, and admitting it to someone she barely knows? It sounds so “Durr“, now, but I was not the most worldly teenager and this was the late eighties. The dark ages, before the popularity of the TV show “Will and Grace”, and well before Ellen’s famous “coming out” episode of her sit-com, and I was not expecting to hear a female name at all.
A bit thrown, I paused, absorbing that information, then just said what I would have if she’d been talking about a guy: “Oh, really? Cool. Do you think Trudie the pastry lady’s interested in you?” That was the first time it occurred to me that, oh, gay people getting crushes and dating is exactly the same as straight people!
My biggest gay crush at Trump’s was Ramon, a dashingly handsome manager in his thirties. Ramon was funny, adorable, and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I once mentioned in passing that I loved the perfume Obsession, but I couldn’t afford it at around thirty dollars, as that was almost what I made in a whole eight hour shift. The next day I came to work and a bottle of Obsession was gift wrapped and waiting for me on the cash register, a gift from Ramon.
On the night the restaurant Trumps closed permanently, Ramon kissed me on the lips, probably another act of kindness, based on my crush. We all moved on with our lives and I lost touch with Ramon. Years later, my husband Nick and I were leaving the still popular West Hollywood restaurant Chaya, where I knew Ramon had worked after Trump’s closed.
I stopped and asked the two managers there if they knew what Ramon was doing now. The two men in dark suits exchanged an uncomfortable look and told me that Ramon had died of AIDS about two years prior. I was taken aback in the moment, in shock. I thanked them, but didn’t cry until I got home. Then I sobbed.
I once spent Ramon’s birthday with him, just the two of us, and for a present, I gave him a framed poem that I had written about him. It went like this:
My handsome friend,
it makes me smile
to be with you
Your goodness glows
in saddest times,
it’s how you make it through
No rain will fall upon your head
for long, my love,
Because your warmth lights up the room,
and that is sun enough
And every day I spend with you
reminds me more,
that through each wave, a moment’s there
to see the shore
Faces can be deceiving,
but not with you
‘Neath this angel face
lies an angel
and his heart is true.
~ Ramon was my friend and I loved him.
When you’re a struggling, aspiring actress or writer living in L.A., you do a lot of odd jobs to pay your rent, and believe me, they’re not all pretty. I slaved at restaurants and hotels and did odd jobs with varying levels of humiliation for nearly a decade before I sold my first screenplay.
My first waitressing job was at a restaurant in Pasadena, California, a city about a thirty minute drive from Hollywood, where I was attending The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, an acting school that boasts Alumnus the likes of Robert Redford and Danny Devito. The restaurant where I worked is part of a chain that’s famous for their pies.
I was eighteen then, and I was issued a peach polyester peasant girl-style uniform with puffy short sleeves trimmed with white eyelet lace, a plastic nametag and a cornflower blue polyester skirt with an elegant and distinctive cigarette burn hole in it.
Yes, this was my grown-up, adult work uniform, and it had previously been worn by a former employee, I’m guessing she was a smoker or just tried to light herself on fire because she had to wear that uniform to work in. The cigarette burn never ran no matter how many times I washed that skirt and ran it through the dryer, because polyester is freaking indestructible.
We served delicious, creamy potato cheese soup that stayed hot in these metal vats, in the same area where we heated cornbread and croissants, and when no one was looking, I would stick my finger in the metal vat and lick the soup off of it. Being a waitress at the pie place was a grueling, thankless job with very few perks, so I took whatever pleasure and glory I could muster. The soup would get really cheesy and crusty on the sides of the vat,- that was the best.
Each waitress would have about a half hour of “sidework” at the end of each shift, and the jobs would rotate. One of the managers would literally white-glove test the inside of the microwave, to make sure it was spotless. If my job assignment was wrapping up the pies and scrubbing the pie area down, I would always eat the fragments of pie that stuck to the pans, especially the pecan, the German chocolate and the Boston cream.
The worst sidework job, by far, the one that everybody dreaded, was to be deemed “The Butter Queen“. That meant you were personally responsible for making all of the regular butters and the honey butters the entire restaurant would need for the next day (Or was it for the whole next week? The next millennium?)
If you were The Butter Queen, you would enter, shivering both from the temperature and the fear, into the giant, walk-in industrial fridge and take down these massive, heavy white plastic butter vats from a high shelf.
Then you would use a smaller version of an ice cream type scooper to scoop each serving out into trays of little plastic cups. We dipped the scoop into hot water, but still, your arms would be exhausted from the effort, and you’d be up to your elbows in greasy butter by the time you were through.
The final touch is that you were supposed to sprinkle cinnamon over all the honey butters, so people could tell them apart from the regular ones. There was a harrowing tale going around amongst the waitresses that a girl once accidentally sprinkled the regular butters with cinnamon, not the honey butters, and she had to do them all over again (!).
At the pie restaurant, this story was equivalent to a horror movie where you are tortured by an inbred, flesh eating family in the Appalacian mountains. Our eyes widened and our throats went dry at the very thought.
I would always take it extremely personally if I was given a bad tip, especially when I knew I had done a good job. I once cried because a large table of teenagers, kids who were about my age but didn’t have to wear the polyester skirt with the cigarette burn or work at the pie place for a living, left me a tip of eighty six cents, after I’d slaved over their table for hours.
People told me I would eventually develop a thicker skin and I wouldn’t care so much, but I waitressed on and off for nine years, and I never did develop a thick skin.
One night, when I was hostessing at Trump’s and was feeling sad and low, I went into the kitchen and asked the chef, the late Michael Roberts, if he could make me some “chicken and noodles”, which is one of my favorite comfort foods. He whipped me up a dish from scratch, and he later put the recipe into one of the cookbooks he had published, writing that it was inspired by his “barely out of her teens hostess, Heidi“.
One day I was driving to Trump’s and was making a legal left turn in my old Chevy blazer, when a motorcycle tried to speed around me, passing on the left. I was horrified when I hit the guy and he flew off his motorcycle into the air, while the cycle went skidding down the street.
Not only was I terrified he was hurt, I was too hand-to-mouth poor to afford car insurance and still be able to pay my rent, even working full time. At that time I was living alone in a tiny furnished apartment with a mini-fridge slash stove (the burners were on top of the fridge), in back of a crabby old man’s house off of Sunset Boulevard, a few blocks behind the famous rock club The Whiskey, where bands like The Doors once played. My landlord wanted his money on time, funny how landlords are like that.
It’s hard to understand if you’ve never been there, but that’s how “the working poor” live: scraping by, living on a wing and a prayer, having to make the choice between car insurance or health insurance or sometimes neither. It’s a dangerous way to live, but a lot of people take their chances, like I was doing back then.
The motorcycle guy was luckily unhurt and super nice- he apologized to me, he knew the accident had been his fault. He was the actor Esai Morales, who I recognized from the movie La Bamba, and to this day I’m so very grateful he’s alive and well. (My nephew, Jupiter, loved the cartoon Dora the Explorer, a show that Esai Morales does one of the voices on. And now so does my son Bex.)
It was big for me, seeing celebrities live in the flesh in L.A., this was back before TMZ.com and X17online.com and Perez Hilton’s website, before you could see a celebrities’ every move and track them online while they dig out a wedgie or stoop to pick up an ailing transvestite- whaaa?
When I moved to Los Angeles, sure, I knew in theory that actors and actresses lived there, but I didn’t think they’d dwell amongst us, in the dirt among the peasants and commoners, I thought they’d be holed up in their hilltop mansions doing candy corns. Okay, I didn’t know the word “candy corns” when I was eighteen, unless it involved the wind or was immediately followed by the word “job.” In fact, I think the term “candy corns” is outdated, right now it’s all about….okay I don’t know anything about drugs, but I do like me some candy corns.
I don’t do drugs kids, I’m just joshing. I’m a mother, that means I’m re-virginized, doncha know.
Anyway, we never saw any stars back in Kansas, and the only stars we ever saw in New Orleans were on the floats of the Mardi Gras parades, exalted on high as Kings and Queens. I still remember the first two I saw there as a kid, Sandy Duncan, the famous former ice skater who’s played Peter Pan in a gazillion stage performances, and Eddie Mekka, the actor who played Carmine Ragusa, aka “The Big Ragoo”, on my favorite childhood show “Laverne and Shirley.”
At eleven, I chased after The Big Ragoo as fast as my feet would carry me, screaming “THE BIG RAGOOOOOO!!!”, like a maniac. And I think Sandy Duncan threw me a doubloon, a worthless Mardi Gras coin, which I gripped like gold. Sandy Duncan has a glass eye, which I’ve always found to be an oddly comforting piece of trivia, because I’m clumsy, and I may eventually lose an eye and need a filler. I’ve always liked the idea of a black patch, I’d go pirate all the way.
It was shocking to me to discover that it’s very common to run into famous people “in the wild” in L.A., in their natural habitat, like standing in line behind Faye Dunaway at the Koo Koo Roo chicken restaurant in West Hollywood as she peruses the paper and casually discusses Chinese politics, or waiting in line to pee in the bathroom of a bar next to Drew Barrymore, or begging George Clooney over sushi dragon rolls to stop begging you to live on Lake Como with him in Italy over and over and over again.
Kidding regarding the go-geous Mr. Clooney, truth be told, I don’t care if George Clooney or even Brad Pitt are vying for my eggs. I couldn’t take the competition in the bathroom mirror in the morning from Brad, not to mention my new “sister-wife” Angelina, without stabbing both my eyes out.
Sure, I got excited seeing cute boys like George at a party, or Matthew McConaughey dancing at a club, or John Cusack standing at a bar, smiling at who I thought was me, but was probably his beautiful date walking in behind me. Even though he may not be as famous anymore, I was just as excited- okay, more, to meet my childhood crush, Shaun Cassidy, from the old Hardy Boys TV show.
Poor Shaun has probably been accosted by a million pyscho losers like me, and he seems very sweet and patient about it. My old friend Kim introduced him to me at a bar on the Santa Monica Pier, where a mutual friend’s band was playing, and I went all fluttery and blinky-eyed with my infantile ador. The woman who I think was introduced to me as his wife was pretty patient, considering the fact that I genuflected, licked her husband’s knee, and wept like a little girl.
After years of living in L.A., I thought I’d started becoming ho-hum about celebrity sightings, but it’s still a bit startling to see Kiefer Sutherland working out at your small gym, with Kato Kaelin from the O.J. trial sweating on the stairmaster next to you. Then your new next door neighbor moves in and it’s Bob Guiney, from the reality dating show The Bachelor, and his (now ex) wife, Rebecca Budig from All My Children, shortly after your landlord tells you Parker Posey lived in your apartment before you, and it’s because of her that you enjoy “a soaking tub.”
It’s all very Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, and you begin to feel a bit like Forrest Gump, except Jenny didn’t have your baby and you’re really just taking people to their table and serving them crab cakes with garlic aioli.
There’s also a weird thing that happens in L.A. sometimes, where you keep seeing the same person over and over. For years, it seemed like I saw Scott Baio almost everywhere I went. For a couple of years, I kept seeing adorable Matthew Perry at parties, restaurants, clubs, the movie theater…you start to look at each other after a while and wonder if you should know each other. Or maybe they just thought I was their stalker, in which case I should’ve given them the crazy eyes and let a string of viscous drool stretch from my lip, that would’ve been pretty.
There are also strange combinations of celebrities you’ll see at the same gathering, a few years ago I went to a 4th of July party thrown by Wilmer Valderrama of That ’70’s Show, at a house he owned in the Valley. He was rumored to be dating Lindsey Lohan at the time, which I cannot confirm nor deny, but she was there, as was her little sister Ali and her mother, Dina Lohan, and for some reason, Jennifer Lopez’s ex-husband, Criss Judd, who seemed like a sweet guy.
Nick and I were sitting with our friend, producer Dana Brunetti (Mini’s First Time, 21, The Social Network), near Wilmer’s pool, with actress LeeLee Sobieski, as the very charming host walked over and hung out a bit, then introduced us to Frankie Muniz, from TV’s Malcom in the Middle. We all got oddly silent for a moment, looking at him, and for me, it was because he still looked so young. But I’ve heard he’s savvy and practically the richest person in Hollywood. Smart real estate decisions, I think, and the holy grail of a little word called syndication.
When my sister Laura came to town to throw a party with the high fashion magazine she was working for, I nearly panicked when introducing myself to Adam Duritz from the band Counting Crows, who was just hanging out with his parents on a couch. I tried not to appear like I was hyperventilating when I told him I thought he was a poet, because I had spent hours of my life lying on my living room floor, listening to his beautiful record, August and Everything After in full twenty-something melancholia, if not borderline depression.
The movie “Swingers” has that funny, so accurate scene showing what it’s like to go to a party in L.A., the way that everyone turns to look at you when you first walk in, to see if you’re anybody famous. It was cool to end up at a party shortly after Swingers came out, where Vince Vaughn and John Favreau were as well, and I chatted with John Favreau a bit on the tennis courts of the house.
They’ve obviously both gone on to huge things, but it made you feel like, wow, you were practically in the Swingers lifestyle, if only for a (delusional, for me) minute. Hugh Hefner was at that same party with his three blonde then-girlfriends, sitting by the pool, and I nearly flashed him my boobs as I walked past him. It seemed like the only logical thing to do but I restrained myself.
I was a hostess or a waitress at several hotel restaurants for nine years before selling a screenplay, including the Beverly Hilton (funny that I would later write a movie that Paris Hilton was in). That hotel is where they currently hold almost every Hollywood awards show, including The Golden Globes, and I also worked at the beautiful Hotel Bel Air, which is rated one of the top hotels in the world and hosts just about every celebrity you could think of, as well as a lot of Sultans and international royalty.
The years of my waitressing and hostessing seemed never-ending, at times, but there were rare experiences I got to have at each job. At the French restaurant L’Escoffier, which was an old-school supper club and used to be on the top floor of the Beverly Hilton, I once worked on New Year’s Eve when the great singer Peggy Lee performed on the stage from a wheelchair, as people like George Burns rung in the New Year, wielding a cigar.
Rodney Dangerfield lived in the hotel while I worked there, and he would always come by during the day in his robe and slippers, lobbing me jokes. I knew I was lucky to get to be around these legends, in any capacity.
There was a private party there one night for Jack Nicholson, after he won an American Film Institute award, where nearly every guest was a famous face, and my only job was to stand by the door in a formal gown and greet them. Meryl Streep, my and every other aspiring actresses’ absolute life idol, grabbed my shoulders and asked me where the ladies’ room was. I desperately wanted to blurt out to her “I- I love your work!” but I was too shy.
My actress friend Eva and I had gone to the L.A. Opera together when we were both about nineteen and saw Meryl Streep there. We did speak to her for a brief, thrilling moment, and she was lovely to us.
At the same party, I was asked to bring a glass of water to a guy with his back to me, and the late Dennis Hopper turned around, grinning. I sometimes substituted for one of the hostesses at the famous Tiki style restaurant, Trader Vic’s, which was also part of the Beverly Hilton, where I’d seat legends of cinema for dinner, like Lauren Bacall.
By offering to volunteer at the door, I got to attend the legendary feminist and writer Gloria Steinam’s 60th birthday party in the Hilton ballroom. She shook my hand on her way in, and I said “It’s an honor to meet you” and she smiled at me and replied, “It’s an honor to meet you.” I thought that was an incredibly gracious (but obviously vastly untrue) response.
When the L.A. riots happened, Fernand, my beloved French (Canadian) friend and Maitre ‘d and I watched the eruption of fires crop up around the city, from L’Escoffier’s glass wrap-around windows, after the Rodney King verdicts were announced. It was such a strange place to be during this scary and sad time, watching from a glittery room where people ate caviar and spun across the dance floor to Stormy Weather.
At the Hotel Bel Air, it was common to see someone like Oprah walking by in the morning with no make-up on, in her workout clothes, or Nancy Reagan and her society friend Betsy Bloomingdale standing up from their usual patio table to get a better look at Motown founder Berry Gordy. Once, during lunch, Sarah Fergison, the Duchess of York, wanted to get a better look at Brad Pitt sitting at an inside corner table.
She fibbed to me that she was “Just going to the loo!”, and before I could tell her she was walking in the wrong direction, she ended up in the kitchen, with confused Secret Service men trailing behind her.
The Hotel Bel Air’s cocktail lounge was one of the only places in town where there was a strictly enforced dress code, men had to wear jacket coats in the lounge and the dining room. Because a lot of people didn’t know this, we had a few standard, navy blue men’s jackets people could borrow, with the hotel’s insignia on the front of the jacket.
Part of my job was to ask customers without jackets to put one of these on, and I was mortified to have to tell this rule to anyone, let alone A-list stars like Robin Williams and Sean Penn. It felt like I was telling people they were dressed like vagrants and homeless people, who would be given the boot out of our fine establishment if they didn’t clean up their pitiful, hobo appearance.
The actors couldn’t have been nicer about it, but Sean Penn left wearing the jacket and we never saw it again (he may have just left it in his room). I’m shamed to admit that in a moment of insanity, I once took a partially smoked cigar left by Robert DeNiro at his table, and furtively wrapped it in tin foil, thinking it was a nice piece of celebrity memorabilia to save. I threw it out the next day, the better angels of my nature triumphing over a bizarre hoarding moment.
I probably could’ve sold it on EBay, but the technical knowledge of how to achieve that still escapes me, and how would you prove authenticity? DNA? Perhaps Mr. DeNiro would’ve obliged with a cheek swab, a few cells I could’ve secured in a petri dish, in lieu of a tip?
I almost always found that the bigger the celebrity, honestly, the nicer they were to me, and I’m not a** kissing, maybe that’s why they were who they were in the first place. When Tom Cruise approached the hostess desk one night, I mentioned that my boyfriend played squash with his cousin, W, who was a friend of ours long before we knew they were related.
I had never met him before, and he graciously chatted with me and helped me pull and arrange chairs around his and Nicole Kidman’s table, way back when they were married. Later, W asked me if I had met his cousin. It stunned me that Tom Cruise actually remembered meeting me, and bothered to ask him about a brief little moment, talking to a lowly restaurant hostess. (I later wrote some freelance episodes for his future wife’s, Katie Homes’, show, “Dawson’s Creek”).
A while after that, W, who’s a very talented actor in his own right (he was in the acclaimed movie In The Bedroom) had a housewarming party, and Tom was there and was just as friendly to everyone. I was taken by how normal a father he seemed, as he yelled “Connor, get down from there!” protecting his young son from falling from where he was climbing.
John Travolta would sometimes come in to the Bel Air solo, quietly enjoying afternoon tea. I think this was before he married Kelly Preston, he seemed friendly and regular, just a guy who enjoyed the finer things in life. Al Pacino used to come in between lunch and dinner, when the restaurant was empty, often sitting alone.
I heard him speaking and I kept thinking he was talking to me. I almost responded a few times, because there was no one else around, until I finally figured out he was just rehearsing his lines for his latest role. The first time he entered the restaurant while I was working there, and walked up behind me, I was slightly bending over near the hostess stand with my back to him, and he said “Very nii-iice!”, with the same inflections he used in the movie “Scent of a Woman.” He was probably complimenting the flower arrangement, but a girl can dream, no?
I got to meet people like baseball legend Joe Dimaggio and shake his hand, which was amazing to me, because I was a big Marilyn Monroe fan and it blew my mind that he had been married to her, it felt like she existed in such a different era. I met JFK Jr. at the Bel Air, a few years before his tragic plane crash, he was friendly and devastatingly handsome in person.
I had also worked at a few restaurants on the Sunset Strip, one, called Chin Chin, was trendy and popular for Chinese take-out with a California flair. I would be making Chinese Chicken Salads or working the cash register, and end up chatting with Paul Stanley of the band Kiss, or Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder would come in, shyly holding hands, way back when they were a couple and he had her name tattooed on his arm. It read “Winona Forever”, which he famously later changed to “Wino forever.”
I would be hostessing there and cringe as a waiter dripped sauce on Richard Gere’s dinner companion. I made only around six dollars an hour as a hostess back then, but for a girl fresh out of small town Kansas and Louisiana, it was all pretty dazzling.
Chin Chin was a small restaurant then and they didn’t take reservations, so when I worked in the hostess position, I had to take down people’s names for the waiting list. Some people would put their names down, then stroll down the street, coming back to check how much longer the wait would be.
Unfailingly, someone would accuse me of letting these people cut the line, insisting they must be my friends, and I never did let anyone cut, I was irritatingly honest. I just hate when people are mean to the little people, just because they can be, don’t you? For months I fantasized about saying something rude back to these jerks, my favorite fantasy line being “Why don’t you take that chicken salad you’re about to order and shove it up your a**!!”.
This very thought put a smile on my face and sustained me through the long, dark nights. On my last day of work, two weeks after I had given my notice to the restaurant, I had a horrible woman accuse me of the same thing and lean in close to my face, threatening “I’ll have you fired.”
Imagine Cruella De Vil, but bitchier. I wanted to say “I’ll have you put into a wood chipper“, but instead I leaned in towards her, wild-eyed, and told her “You can be a B*&%# to me all you want, ’cause I’ll be a BEE-YATCH right back!”. Cruella-but-worse shrieked in my face, “Where’s your manager?!!”
I squared my shoulders and tossed my hair, yelling with great satisfaction, “You CAN’T get me fired, because I ALREADY QUIT!!” She looked positively stunned, most horrible people don’t expect to be challenged, they’re used to people cowering in their wake. Then I slapped her and pulled off her wig, using one of the candles from the patio tables to set it aflame. No, that last part’s a lie, but I bet that would’ve startled her somethin’ fierce.
I did cater-waiter jobs, bringing glasses of wine to Sylvester Stallone at a funeral or working a party for chef Wolfgang Puck of Spago at legendary producer Robert Evan’s home (The Godfather), who I later had a failed business negotiation with as a screenwriter, under his producing deal at Paramount. I briefly worked in the former Carolco building on Sunset, where producers lunched with Arnold Schwarzenegger (back when he was a wildly unfamous, struggling action pic star, long before he became Governor of California) and Stallone and Paul Verhoeven, the director of “Basic Instinct,” making deals.
I got one of my best pieces of waitressing advice from the waiter who trained me there: If someone asks you what kind of dressing comes on a salad and you don’t know the answer, always say it’s “a champagne vinaigrette”, because nobody knows what a champagne vinaigrette is.
I was thrilled to be around so many people who were actually working in show business, even if I was just lying to them about their salad dressing. The way I saw it, a fib built on olive oil and French herbs was but a thin sheen between me and My Destiny.
I also temped a bit and worked odd jobs, like dressing up as a mermaid and taking pictures with little kids at a theater, for the release of the movie “The Little Mermaid.” I had to be wheeled out in my costume because I couldn’t walk with my tail, and I had visions of accidentally tipping over in my mermaid chair and sprawling helplessly on the movie theater lobby’s carpet, as children stared and pointed. They’d have been scarred for life by the sight of a helpless, floppy woman in a clamshell bra, without the aid of a plucky crab friend.
I auditioned for and joined a children’s theater group called The Lilliput Players, and we performed plays at schools and other venues around Southern California. The group was based out of a city called Tustin, and it was a long drive to work, about two hours each way in my old rickety car, and we were paid almost nothing, but at least we got to (sort of) act.
We once did a show at a yacht club, where the rude, rich mariner parents drank stiff cocktails and talked so loudly to each other we couldn’t hear any of our lines, while they let their kids traipse right across the stage in the middle of our earnest acting, completely ignoring their untamed rug rats.
One of the coolest things we did was perform at schools in places like South Central L.A. and Watts, where a lot of the children are from lower-income families and had never seen a live stage play in their lives. I played the princess role, and I had long, curly blonde hair and wore a flowing blue dress. When I walked on stage for the first time, the children audibly gasped. I had no idea why, but later people told me it was because my hair was so (colored, um, from a drugstore box) light blonde and the dress, while probably made of cheap blue felt, gold pipe cleaners and duct tape, looked glamorous from afar.
Afterwards, we sometimes got to talk to the precious kids, and they honestly could not believe that the guy who played the prince role and I had actually kissed on stage (it was just a light peck). They thought it was film trickery or slight of hand. Sometimes they wanted to touch my hair. They later sent me pictures they had drawn of me in crayon, which I saved and cherish to this day.
My husband Nick was doing all kinds of odd jobs at the same time, and we sold our bodies to science by doing a condom study together, testing out different brands. Thankfully, we got to test them at home at our apartment, not in front of a team of crack scientists, which would’ve been kinda weird. We didn’t even have to turn in the used condoms to the research center, and we realized they would have no idea, when we filled out the results forms and were given our fifty bucks, if we actually used them or not (We did.)
I had many low points, but a new low came when I was burned out on waitressing, and I answered a newspaper ad to be a cashier at an electronics store in Culver City, just south of L.A. It was a single-owner operation, where the owner would scream at me, “HI-DEE!!” in front of customers, just to see me come running. I once lightly touched his shoulder and could feel bristly hairs poking through his silk shirt, like a hedgehog. I was convinced half of the merchandise, as they say in Mafia circles, “fell off a truck”. The owner was very nice to people until they bought something, then he pretended he fell off the face of the earth.
I took dozens of messages a day from irate customers who wanted something they bought from us under warranty fixed, and the owner rarely if ever took the calls. I was told he spent two hours a day in his office “praying”, and should not be disturbed. I worked with two other guys who were floor salesmen, both of whom fancied themselves ladies’ men.
One, I’ll call him V, was about thirty and in some sort of continuous feud with a scary, anonymous phone caller, who would make angry calls that I’d have to answer, demanding to speak with V multiple times a day and making death threats. Come to think of it, I got yelled at a lot, at this delightful job. V would snatch the phone from my hand and scream and curse into it in a language I didn’t understand.
The other floor salesman there, I’ll call him Kyle, was a surfer dude whose favorite expression was an enthusiastic, if grating, “EEE–HEEWWW!!!”, with a double “thumbs up” gesture, no matter the subject. His proctologist could’ve told him his bowels were riddled with polyps, and Kyle’s reaction would’ve been “EEE-HEEWWW!!!”.
The highlights of my life became watching trailers for a movie with animated cockroaches on seventy five screens simultaneously, reheating my coffee in the microwave and crossing the busy street to the gas station to buy a Rice Krispies Treat, hoping I’d be struck by a vehicle and put out of my misery. I developed rampant insomnia because I was so depressed about the state of my life, then I was fired, probably because I put the wrong prices and descriptions on all the TVs on little 4×6, white index cards.
I really couldn’t type and I didn’t know anything about electronics, so I’m pretty sure I made stuff up. I wrote things like “picture in picture” on each card, even though I didn’t know if a particular TV offered that feature.
I wrote this poem during that period, which reveals I was becoming just a teeny tiny bit bitter, and the bloom was off the “fresh-off-the-bus” rose:
Maybe reheat it,
Just to have something to do
You work here so you
Can’t pay the bills,
What is the matter with you?
Watching the clock,
Draining your life
That’s the corporate way
Be extra nice to the
Son of the man
Who puts his pen to your pay
You got this job
’cause he’d like to have you
(That is, if he had his way)
So much unspoken
That you would never
(Just play dumb, darling)
Two hundred and fifty
You think you’re the most qualified?
It was the highlights
You put in your hair
And the miracle bra
Just screen the calls, dear,
Take all the info
The why, the how, the who
Smile at the clients
That’s why you’re here, dear
They’d like to have you, too.
Remember, I wrote this when I was very young. As much as I hated some of these jobs at the time I was doing them, I’m grateful to them because they allowed me to pay my rent and survive while I kept auditioning and writing screenplays, and dreaming that someday I’d have a different life.
Big Hollywood producers, directors, and movers and shakers would come into the places where I worked, and I’d desperately want to tell them that I had a script I’d like them to read, but I knew if I did, I could be fired. I thought about leaving my scripts in the bathrooms at the Bel Air Hotel, hoping the right person would happen upon them while they were in the middle of a stream of fresh pee and discover me, but I was too scared I’d get in trouble.
I dreamed and prayed and cried and kept working, and then one day, something big actually happened. Like a miracle. Like pennies from heaven.
But first, I had to come to terms with the painful fact that try as I might, the “Butter Queen” probably wasn’t gonna make it as an actress.
As the Old Russian Proverb goes: “Hope is the last to die.”
…To be continued…
P.S. You may also like previous post/essay (on Mardi Gras coming-of-age) Throw Me Somethin’ Mister.
Girl to Mom is currently number 4 out of over 600 international entries on
Babble Best Mom Blogger nominations 2010
If you have two secs, please click through on the blue/purple hyperlink to Babble and click on the thumb next to Girl to Mom- “I Like This Blogger.” No need to log in or anything, easy-peasy.
If you’ve already voted- Thank you so much!